March 22, 2023

More than three years after Elon Musk shocked the auto industry with an electric pickup truck that looks more like a stealth fighter than a way to haul two-by-fours and drywall, Tesla said last week that it will start building the car by the end of 2023.

The announcement helped fuel a rally in Tesla’s stock price, but also reignited a debate over whether the oft-delayed Cybertruck pickup was a work of genius or proof of Musk’s hubris.

Building a pickup that looks like a Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado or Ram 1500 pickup (the three best-selling models in the US) is very different from Tesla CEO Mr. Musk.

With its angular, stainless-steel body, the Cybertruck is trying to redefine the pickup truck in the same way that Tesla upended the auto industry’s conventional wisdom by proving that battery-powered vehicles are practical and profitable.

Tesla advertises that the top-of-the-line version of the truck will be able to tow 14,000 pounds and accelerate faster than a Porsche 911. The Cybertruck’s doors automatically open when the driver approaches.

The truck is important because it will be Tesla’s first new passenger vehicle in three years and could help breathe life into a lineup that some buyers consider dated. Since Tesla’s latest model, the Model Y, went on sale in early 2020, established automakers such as Ford, General Motors and Hyundai have released several new electric models.

But the Cybertruck is so behind schedule that some auto experts wonder whether it has become yet another example of Mr. Musk pushing the boundaries of technology to the brink of disaster. In 2018, his decision to build a highly automated assembly line for the Model 3 sedan led to “production hell” and nearly destroyed the company before he opted for more standard manufacturing practices.

This time, what makes industry experts shake their heads is that the Cybertruck body is made of stainless steel.

Stainless steel is corrosion resistant and does not require painting, eliminating the cost and need for environmentally toxic chemical coatings. But it’s also expensive and difficult to form and weld. Stainless steel is generally heavier than the steel used in most other cars, reducing mileage.

There’s a reason that only one car company has ever attempted to mass-produce a car with a stainless steel body. That’s the DeLorean, which went out of business after making fewer than 10,000 cars, famously starring as time machines in the “Back to the Future” movies.

“Musk is an example of how fascination with tech startups and their leaders can ultimately lead those leaders to make poor decisions,” Patrick McQueen, executive director of entrepreneurship at Towson University in Maryland, said in an email. “To me, the insistence on stainless shows that he believes he has some unique understanding of the market and that the market will buy whatever he offers because it comes from the mind of Elon Musk.”

Stainless steel costs more than the steel used in most cars because it contains chromium and often other ingredients in high demand, such as nickel and molybdenum. Stainless steel tends to snap back into its original shape, meaning it can’t be stamped into fenders and other components as easily as the more pliable steels most automakers use. It also requires special welding techniques.

These challenges may help explain why Tesla plans to build the Cybertruck at its factory in Austin, Texas, is two years behind schedule.

“Tesla thought they could solve any problem and didn’t need to learn from anyone,” said Raj Rajkumar, an engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “Then they got stuck.”

Tesla said in an earnings report last week that it will start producing the Cybertruck by the end of the year. But Mr. Musk qualified the announcement on a conference call with analysts and investors, saying the company would not begin mass production of the car until 2024. When Tesla unveiled the Cybertruck, it said the vehicle would go on sale in 2021.

The car “won’t be a significant contributor to profits” until 2023, “but it will be next year,” Mr. Musk said.

Tesla’s delays have left legacy automakers with an electric pickup first and prevented Tesla from offering anything to the many Americans who prefer pickup trucks to cars or sport-utility vehicles.

Buyers are clamoring for electric trucks. Ford stopped taking preorders for its F-150 Lightning, the battery-powered version of its best-selling car, because it couldn’t make the vehicle fast enough. Rivian, a newer EV company, is also struggling to produce enough R1T pickups to meet demand.

General Motors’ GMC division is selling the Hummer pickup, but in relatively small numbers. Chevrolet is expected to start delivering the electric Essaouira this year. Ram has said it will release a battery-powered 1500 truck next year.

“The first-mover advantage that Tesla could have taken advantage of is completely gone,” Mr Rajkumar said. “A huge opportunity lost.”

Tesla has shared few details about how it will overcome the challenges of using stainless steel, including safety. The steel used in most cars is designed to wrinkle in a crash, absorb energy and protect passengers. Stainless steel is less prone to wrinkling, allowing passengers to withstand more impact.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

There are indications that the truck will use the same or a similar stainless steel recipe as SpaceX, the rocket company that Musk leads. SpaceX vice president of materials engineering Charles Kuehmann holds the same title at Tesla.

Mr. Kuehmann is the co-founder of material design company QuesTek and works on Apple’s design team. His reputation as a pioneer in the use of new materials led some engineering experts to believe that Tesla had developed an alloy that could overcome the challenges of stainless steel.

Kuman did not respond to a request for comment.

Instead of the typical curves of most vehicles, the Cybertruck’s body is made up of flat steel plates that experts say may have been laser-cut and welded together, eliminating the need for powerful stamping machines.

“In a broad sense, the concept makes sense,” said Kip Findley, a professor of metallurgy and materials engineering at the Colorado School of Mines who has studied advanced steels for vehicles. “It’s pushing steel forward and getting people to think about steel differently, which is a good thing.”

“But there are still some unanswered questions,” Mr Findlay added. These include how owners will repair damage to the Cybertruck’s body, which Tesla calls an “exoskeleton.” Stainless steel is less prone to denting than traditional auto body steel, but once damaged it is harder to restore.

As the only company producing stainless steel bodies at scale, Tesla will not be able to take advantage of the economies of scale shared by other automakers. That could make the truck more expensive to produce.

When Tesla launched the Cybertruck, it said it would start at just under $40,000. But the final price is widely expected to be much higher.

Tesla is accepting reservations for the Cybertruck for $100, but did not give a price for the vehicle. Tesla did not say how many reservations it had amassed.

If nothing else, the Cybertruck will stand out in a crowded field.

Stainless steel bodywork is “certainly possible,” said Wei Xiong, an associate professor of metallurgy and materials design at the University of Pittsburgh, noting that computer-aided design allows researchers to develop high-performance materials much more quickly than they could just a few years ago. “I can understand why he wanted to be there.”

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